For a group that likes to call themselves car people, automotive enthusiasts have an odd affection for cars that look like trucks: The Chevrolet El Camino, the Ford Ranchero, and the Subaru Brat.
Whatever you call these oddities—car-truck, truck-car, cowboy Cadillac, ute—it’s tempting to say that they trace their lineage back to Henry Ford and the 1917 Model TT truck. Though early Ford cars and trucks are obviously related, the TT was a purpose-built utility vehicle with a more substantial frame and drivetrain. Typically, car-based trucks have gone in the other direction, borrowing their mechanicals from automobiles, not trucks, and tilting the utility/luxury balance more towards the latter.
So, if not the Model TT, which vehicle is the true founder of the car-truck line?
1924 Model TT stake bed Ford
Since I haven’t done a Marianas Trench–level dive into the subject, I can’t say with 100 percent certainty that it was independent automakers Studebaker and Hudson that first introduced actual car-based pickup trucks to the American market. However, I believe that the 1937–39 Studebaker Coupe Express and the 1941–47 Hudson Cab Pick-up (including the 3/4 ton “Big Boy” models) are among the very first American vehicles that combined pickups’ cargo beds with the styling, sheetmetal, and mechanical componentry of those brands’ passenger cars.
Introduced for the 1937 model year, the Coupe Express was based on the Studebaker Dictator. In case you’re wondering why Studebaker would choose a model name associated with despots, the Dictator nameplate was introduced in 1927, before Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, and Stalin had solidified the word’s modern connotations. If the branding scheme is now awkward, it was at least coherent: Dictator was the entry-level Studebaker, below the midrange Commander and flagship President.
Power was supplied by Studebaker’s larger, 218-cubic-inch (3.6 liter) L-head inline six-cylinder producing 86 horsepower, driving through a three-speed manual transmission, with an optional Borg-Warner overdrive available. Typical passenger-car options like radios, heaters, and turn signals were available. You could even choose from two different styles of steel wheels. (Yes, young Padawan, things like heaters and turn signals were not always standard equipment, let alone air conditioning. Before the 1976 Honda Accord, cars were very much priced à la carte.) About 3000 units of the introductory Coupe Express were sold. Advertising touted the “passenger-car comfort and style … combined with useful business body types.”
For the 1938 model year, the cab of the Coupe Express was updated to reflect styling changes on the passenger cars. In this case, styling alterations made the vehicle more practical: They allowed for a slightly longer cargo bed, which featured a sharp-looking, backwards-sloped tailgate. Despite the styling changes, sales dropped by almost two-thirds to around 1200 trucks. Again, the 1939 models were restyled to reflect Studebaker’s cars, but sales of the utes dropped even more, to just about 1000 units. The Coupe Express was discontinued to be replaced in 1941 by a 1/2 ton model of Studebaker’s more conventional M-Series pickup in 1941.
Hudson, on the other hand, never developed a dedicated truck line. You could well argue that all of Hudson’s pickup trucks, in fact all of its light commercial vehicles, were car-based. This wasn’t a bad thing, since Hudson’s automobiles were regarded as robustly overbuilt; perhaps they were suited well for the task of being car-truck hybrids.
In 1929 Hudson’s Dover truck brand started selling a line of commercial vehicles based on the parent company’s Essex automobiles, equipped with pickup beds, side-express bodies, or custom bodies made by the Hercules company in Kentucky. The United States Postal Service was a major customer, buying 500 of the car-based trucks, presumably for mail delivery. One of those postal utes, shown below, long resided at the Hostetler Hudson Museum in Shipshewana, Indiana, which closed in 2018.
1929 Hudson Essex Dover US Mail Truck Flickr | Joe Ross
Hudson also sold those same vehicles under the Essex brand, with slight changes. In 1932, a new line of pickups and sedan deliveries were offered, based on the Terraplane. With the Great Depression going on, sales were modest and peaked at about 8000 units in 1937.